by Tim Gilmore, 3/10/2018
When promo models weren’t stepping in their leather t-strap sandals and gingham sundresses or penny loafers and skirts and sleeveless crochet cardigans, their Volkswagen Bugs and AMC Gremlins and Plymouth Barracudas bogged down in the mud lanes and sand parking lots amidst the tall red pines.
“The conditions were primitive,” says Betsy Griffey, who began teaching English at Cumberland Campus, Florida Junior College, in 1967. “Everything was mud and pine straw and people just sort of parked their cars haphazardly up against the buildings.”
Throughout the complex of World War II Navy housing, small wooden signs now identified the modest woodframe, cement-floor duplexes as “Radio and Journalism” or “Financial Aid” or “Student Activities,” a slightly larger wooden sign marked the office of the provost, and a Quonset hut was gutted and carved into halves, a telephone window placed in the interior divider wall, to house the English Department.
“I never thought of it like, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look like Florida State University,’” Betsy says. “We just thought this was what the beginning looked like.”
In 1966, there was no University of North Florida, and private Jacksonville University was too expensive for most local residents. Florida Junior College’s Cumberland Campus offered the first chance for many young people even to think about college, much less have such an opportunity in their hometown.
Betsy remembers her first years at the college as “the halcyon days.” She says, “We were quite a group. The year I came and the year after, they weren’t just hiring faculty, they were hiring whole departments.” Most members of these new departments were young, just out of grad school, and idealistic.
Most of them had academic degrees, not education degrees, Betsy says, and the school really was a junior college, not a community college. When UNF opened its doors in 1972, it offered the upper two years of a bachelor’s degree, and FJC offered the first two years.
In 1967, professors interviewing for new FJC positions found salaries starting at $6,840, about $1800 more than what Mississippi junior colleges paid.
For 1966-’67, teaching load was five classes in the fall, five in the spring, and two in one of two summer terms. Though load requirements rose and fell in future years, in 2018, load still counts as 5/5, no summers, though many professors regularly teach overloads in the fall and spring to make ends meet and maybe take their families on vacation.
These days, college faculty sometimes teach as many as 54 credit hours, or 18 courses a year. The teaching load for fall and spring terms is the same as it was in ’66-’67, though in 1967, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) denied FJC accreditation, citing “excessive teaching loads” and “poor communication” between administration and faculty.
In A College Tells its Story: An Oral History of Florida Community College at Jacksonville, 1963-1991, Professor Robert Gentry quotes the college’s first president, J. Bruce Wilson, “My reaction to those criticisms is to plead guilty.” In response, Wilson says he developed “guidelines for faculty salary raises” and worked for fairer scheduling.
Nevertheless, Betsy Griffey sees her first years at the college as a “wonderful time. It was not a frivolous time. We felt like we were doing something really important. You couldn’t help but feel that way.”
Florida Junior College at Jacksonville was one of the first junior colleges in the state. Betsy and her young, optimistic colleagues had no precedent, no model, no one to consult, and they were thrilled. In idealistic camaraderie, they built a new curriculum and course outlines from scratch, socialized until late in the night, and discussed what books their students should read. They assumed their students would burn with the same passion they felt.
“The system had not been created. We were creating it on the spot,” Betsy says. “That opportunity, in anyone’s life, is extremely rare.” As an example of their passionate idealism, the new faculty decided all English 101 students would read Oedipus Rex.
Betsy recalls the “buildings scattered all over what’s now Kent Campus.” One night, she was giving a final and the lights went out in the little wooden classroom. Her students went out to their cars, drove up to the room’s windows, and shone their headlights into the room so they could finish the exam.
One former sailor who’d lived in Navy housing at Cumberland enrolled in FJC courses at Cumberland Campus and found his professor’s office located in his former kitchen.
On October 27, 1970, a Times-Union headline announced, “Student Shot in F.J.C. Class.” It wasn’t good publicity. The two-year-college movement still faced elitist skeptics. Though America had produced two-year colleges for more than a century, 457 “junior” and “community” colleges started in the late 1960s, somewhere in the populist surge for civil rights and black power, Latino rights and minority representation, the American Indian Movement, women’s rights, gay rights, and the democratic thrust for identity politics.
“Police were bewildered over the shooting about 8 p.m. Tuesday of Vivian Payne, 34, in her social sciences class at the Florida Junior College at Jacksonville, Cumberland Campus, on Roosevelt Boulevard.”
Payne stood in the middle of the classroom near her desk when “a bullet fired by an unseen weapon” entered her breast. “Police searched the classroom and found no weapon. The windows to the room were closed, but the door may have been open.” The continuing investigation soon disclosed a bullet accidentally fired from the pistol Payne kept in her bra.
In the mud and the rain and pine straw and leaf storms, Cumberland Campus, with no air-conditioning, conducted business in more than 160 small former military units, and in one building “down toward Park Street,” FJC headquartered its Experimental College.
EXPERIMENTAL COLLEGE [verbatim from the 1968-’69 Florida Junior College catalog] The Florida Junior College at Jacksonville is instituting an Experimental College as part of its educational offerings. The Experimental College represents an exciting departure from highly formalized educational programs usually found in colleges and universities and thus represents an innovation in higher education.
Philosophy of the Experimental College
Creative young people are likely to turn from convergent thinking, resulting in a single answer, to divergent thoughts. That is, they may reject the single answer and seek others that may be superior. No single answer has been provided for the problem of enhancing the hidden and high hopes of creative people, but the Experimental College is designed to provide the germinal sources for:
1. The student – to develop his abilities by challenging his interest, maturity, originality, and resourcefulness.
2. The college – to provide an educational environment for more intensive and extensive study of regularly presented material which will enrich the student’s background and stimulate enthusiasm for learning those facets of knowledge normally beyond the reach of the average student.
3. The community – to enliven intellectual curiosity which will lead to a deeper understanding of fundamental human problems.
Arnold “Woody” Wood grew up on the Westside in the 1950s and ’60s and hurt his knee playing football at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School and got in some trouble here and there and says if it weren’t for the Experimental College, he doesn’t know where his life might’ve gone. The only full-time job he’s ever had is teaching Speech and Writing and Literature and Film at the community college’s South Campus, where he retired. Woody says nothing like the Experimental College could happen today. It was a beautiful opportunity that those times, the late 1960s, made possible. Students read Beat poetry and watched Fellini movies and got their cars stuck in the mud beneath the pines.
Students like Woody screwed up and got another chance and learned things in ways few college students before their time ever did. “I’ve never gotten over divergent thinking,” he says, “from my two years in ‘the EXP,’ as we called it. I started to take writing seriously in that program, Ferlinghetti and John Lennon and Ray Bradbury. There were about 60 of us that first year, maybe 100 the second year. Ahhhh me!”
Betsy Griffey taught for the Experimental College as well, where she worked alongside Math and Biology and Humanities professors, not just her other English Department colleagues. The EXP encouraged interdisciplinary endeavors.
“We experimented with schedules and curriculum,” she says. “It was kind of a free-for-all, an opportunity to try out unusual things.” The EXP didn’t last long, but Betsy says the college’s honors program grew out of it.
Not everyone was thrilled the EXP’s latitude. A Sunday, June 3, 1968 Florida Times-Union article headlined “Kent: Cut JC [Junior College] ‘Fun’ Courses,” quoted Fred Kent, State Junior College Advisory Board chairman, as saying, “If a person wants to take a cultural course to enrich himself, this is fine,” but that students should bear the total cost of such classes. Kent said “cultural” classes, and his examples were “dancing and folk music,” were “recreation,” not “education.”
In 1979, the college demolished its little military housing units and built the handsome new campus it named for Fred Kent. When bulldozers knocked down the little houses-made-classrooms and biology labs, erstwhile underground bomb shelters opened their hidden netherlands to the Florida sunshine. What burbles beneath the sodden Florida landscape always eventually belches forth to the blinding light.
On October 22, 1979, The Jacksonville Journal’s Lloyd Brown reported, “When the new Kent Campus of Florida Junior College officially opens, Dec. 2, a handful of people will be there quietly enjoying an inside joke.”
Rather than the usual golden-shoveling and ribbon-cutting, a bulldozer would drive over “the last of the old Navy housing project units, which were built on the site in World War II and served as FJC classrooms for 12 years.” Tractors had razed Cumberland’s little buildings over the course of two years, the demolition long and slow and brutal and hopeful and sad and promising.
Brown then reported Jewell Haddock Blackburn, board member, to be not merely “widow of a judge, mother of a judge,” but somebody “in her own right.”
When the Board of Trustees discussed the design of the new campus, “Mrs. Haddock” opined the bricks should be blue, her favorite color, a little joke, haha. Brown (not Blue) mentions (indirectly) that board members may’ve gaslighted “Mrs.” Jewell (Black)burn, having delayed her reappointment to the board, though someone proposed placing one blue brick, inscribed with her name, somewhere in the new construction, “as a tribute of sorts.”
“Another” unnamed “board member seemed displeased,” and the blue brick “was buried quickly.” But not entirely. In fact, Brown prognosticated, “The architectural oddity may puzzle FJC students of the class of 2000 passing through the south entrance to the administration building.”
That architectural oddity is, in fact, a blue brick! Between planning the demolition of the last military housing unit and the groundbreaking of the Fred—“No Fun Courses”—Kent Campus, the Board managed to sneak in One Blue
Jewell Haddock Blackburn Brick, the judge’s daughter-and-wife’s name facing inward, a totally innocuous protest unnoticed by most every student who passes it, a secret snub at sexism undeciphered by each student who may not have read Kate Millet, but may’ve hashtagged “Me Too,” who might like to know that the name of a woman powerful “in her own right” faces inward on the only blue brick amidst more than 600,000 red ones.
Meanwhile, Betsy Griffey remembers the day, 51 years ago, when she got a phone call at six a.m. Dr. Erskine Key, chairman of Humanities, not cognizant of the three hour time difference, called her from Jacksonville. Betsy, finishing her master’s degree at Arizona State, had all but forgotten she’d handwritten an application for this new endeavor, a junior college, back home in Florida.
“So I got all spiffed up for my interview. It was there on Cumberland Campus. No faculty were there, just three men, three administrators, and they asked me a few questions for about 15 minutes. Then one of them said, ‘Would you like to go to lunch?’ I was surprised, but I said, ‘Sure.’ So we went to Strickland’s Townhouse on Philips Highway, had lunch, and they said goodbye. I was puzzled. I thought, ‘Okay? When does my interview start?’ It was that informal.”
Back at Arizona State, Betsy got another call. Dr. Key wanted to know if she might “report” on a certain date. Again she was taken aback by the informality, enough so that she paused, unsure of herself, and asked, “Did I get the job?”